Salmond's question put to the test

New polling evidence shows how Salmond's loaded question increases support for Scottish independence

Alex Salmond's chosen question for the Scottish independence referendum ("Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?) is clearly a leading one. As Robert Cialdini, an American psychologist with no stake in the race, told the Today programme: "it sends people down a particular cognitive chute designed to locate agreements rather than disagreements." But would it actually make any difference to the outcome? Lord Ashcroft's latest poll attempts to answer this question. The former deputy Conservative chairman divided the sample size of 3,090 into three and asked several possible versions of the question.

Presented with Salmond's preferred wording, 41 per cent of Scots supported independence, with 59 per cent opposed. Offered a slightly modified version ("Do you agree or disagree that Scotland should be an independent country?"), the number who favour independence falls to 39 per cent and the number who oppose it rises to 61 per cent. As Ashcroft notes, this represents a "four-point difference in the margin between union and independence."

His third and final question asks "Should Scotland become an independent country, or should it remain part of the United Kingdom?" This version sees support for independence plummet to just 33 per cent and opposition increase to 67 per cent. Thus, we now have significant psephological evidence that the wording of the question could determine the outcome of the referendum.

So far, Salmond, who has conceded that the UK Electoral Commission should run the referendum, has said that the commission will have "a role in assessing the questions" but has refused to say whether it would have a veto over the final wording. However, after Ashcroft's poll he will be under even greater pressure to do so.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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The Liberal Democrats are back - and the Tories should be worried

A Liberal revival could do Theresa May real damage in the south.

There's life in the Liberal Democrats yet. The Conservative majority in Witney has been slashed, with lawyer and nominative determinism case study Robert Courts elected, but with a much reduced majority.

It's down in both absolute terms, from 25,155 to 5,702, but it's never wise to worry too much about raw numbers in by-elections. The percentages tell us a lot more, and there's considerable cause for alarm in the Tory camp as far as they are concerned: the Conservative vote down from 60 per cent to 45 per cent.

(On a side note, I wouldn’t read much of anything into the fact that Labour slipped to third. It has never been a happy hunting ground for them and their vote was squeezed less by the Liberal Democrats than you’d perhaps expect.)

And what about those Liberal Democrats, eh? They've surged from fourth place to second, a 23.5 per cent increase in their vote, a 19.3 swing from Conservative to Liberal, the biggest towards that party in two decades.

One thing is clear: the "Liberal Democrat fightback" is not just a hashtag. The party has been doing particularly well in affluent Conservative areas that voted to stay in the European Union. (It's worth noting that one seat that very much fits that profile is Theresa May's own stomping ground of Maidenhead.)

It means that if, as looks likely, Zac Goldsmith triggers a by-election over Heathrow, the Liberal Democrats will consider themselves favourites if they can find a top-tier candidate with decent local connections. They also start with their by-election machine having done very well indeed out of what you might call its “open beta” in Witney. The county council elections next year, too, should be low hanging fruit for 

As Sam Coates reports in the Times this morning, there are growing calls from MPs and ministers that May should go to the country while the going's good, calls that will only be intensified by the going-over that the PM got in Brussels last night. And now, for marginal Conservatives in the south-west especially, it's just just the pressure points of the Brexit talks that should worry them - it's that with every day between now and the next election, the Liberal Democrats may have another day to get their feet back under the table.

This originally appeared in Morning Call, my daily guide to what's going on in politics and the papers. It's free, and you can subscribe here. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.